The Right to Answers

Nobody knows why the babies are dying near Weldon Spring. But the grownups can't help asking whether the site's toxic stew is to blame.

Karst is karst is karst, as far as Drey's concerned. She remembers DOE subcontractors telling her they weren't allowed even to use the word, it was such a bright red flag. Mike May, a geologist at Western Kentucky University and former environmental consultant for the EPA, understands why: "Karst is one of the quickest ways water can move underground. Groundwater flow maps in karst have a different significance; it seeps, and, locally, the seepage can go the opposite way of regional groundwater flow. The water can be like a spiral.

"Karst isn't for the faint of heart," he adds lightly. "The public doesn't understand karst, the significance of it environmentally. Karst environments are the curve balls of Mother Nature."

"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," says Father Gerry Kleba.
Jennifer Silverberg
"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," says Father Gerry Kleba.

Kleba set out a friendly circle of folding chairs for the January social-concerns meeting, then watched it lose its shape as parishioners and neighbors poured into the multipurpose room. Raising his voice over the buzz, he introduced Bachmann, who said a soft prayer for all mothers. Then they waited, all eyes on the Missouri Department of Health and St. Charles County officials they'd invited to answer their questions.

Because, in the absence of solid information, people tend to assume "it's in the water," Angela Minor, an environmental specialist with the state health department, opened the meeting by explaining that her department started out monitoring 150 wells around the site but cut back to 30 as the findings improved. Only four wells recently tested positive for low levels of radium-226 and uranium, Minor said, and the source had been deduced to be natural and "recommended water softeners." The women in the crowd stared back at her -- since when did "Heloise Hints" work for radioactivity?

"The levels we are seeing here are very small," she continued.

"I'm not concerned with what you're seeing now," called a parishioner. "What if there was a leak in the cell; how long would it take to be dangerous?"

"That," she replied, "I can't answer."

Seeing the looks on people's faces, Mary Halliday, a St. Charles County environmental-services coordinator, leaned forward. "We know your concern," she said warmly. "There is no greater pain than losing a child." Halliday had gathered information for an earlier public-health study, that one triggered by unusually high childhood-leukemia rates. "Please look at everything," she urged the group. "I would like to see you stay with this. In '82, we came to the conclusion that we had an elevation [in leukemia], but we couldn't attach it [to a cause]. It's happened at least twice since then."

"So did people just give up?" asked a parishioner.

"It's exhaustion," Halliday answered simply.

At this, Halliday's boss, Gil Copley, director of community health and the environment, retrieved the microphone and assured the group that studies showed no link whatsoever between the site and area health problems. Up rose Bachmann, who looks as fragile as Mia Farrow and fights for her children just as fiercely: "No one has asked for my baby's medical records, yet the EPA's saying there's no link." Copley frowned: "The EPA's not saying anything." Bachmann checked her file: "I'm sorry. 'Public-health officials' -- would that be you?"

He conceded that it would -- "although I'm not the one quoted," he added hastily. "The people making that statement are looking at large numbers of people and looking for anything abnormal." He passed out charts showing reassuringly normal birth stats from previous years. This report, he hoped, would close the case: It showed St. Charles County with lower infant and in utero death rates than the state in general, and the ZIP codes around the Weldon Spring site with even lower rates than the county's. Now, they didn't have the 2000 stats analyzed yet, but ...

"We baptized 164 children and buried seven -- that's 4 percent mortality," interjected Bachmann. "Missouri's rate is 0.7 percent."

Copley said he was sure the state Department of Health would look into those seven babies' deaths immediately.

The morning after the meeting, Kleba, who'd pushed for a full epidemiological study all along, started to worry. He knew they needed detailed medical and lifestyle information -- as a promise of justice and a safeguard for future generations. Yet he'd sat with bereaved parents for hours, trying to help them accept death's mystery, urging them past anguish over whether they could have somehow saved their babies. "How many ways can we beat ourselves up for not living a perfect life?" he wondered aloud, then vowed to make this process as easy for people as possible.

The next week, after a visit to the preemie twin, now three months at Cardinal Glennon, he dropped in on Minor. What information would they need for an epidemiological study? Could he take the official forms and permission releases to the parents himself, all at once, so they wouldn't have to unfold their grief for a succession of strangers?

Minor called Pat Phillips, D.V.M., a state epidemiologist in Jefferson City, who promised to fax the forms. "So I feel like I've made enormous strides," recalls Kleba, "so I stop. Four days go by. No forms. I call and say, 'You know, if I get them by the weekend, I can spend a little time with the families after church.' Then Angela calls back and says they might not be doing that kind of investigation after all; they'll just check the death certificates, if I'll send those." Kleba's temper flashed. "I said, 'Angela, you have access to all death certificates already. I don't want to do your work for you. And I don't want to limit you to seven, either -- why don't you study any infant in this area who's died since last October? You might find more.'"

« Previous Page
Next Page »